Summers's hailstorm

As recent books prove, you don't have to be a Harvard alumnus to take an interest in its scandals.

By DAN MARKEL
September 17, 2005 03:34

 
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Harvard Rules: The Struggle for the Soul of the World's Most Powerful University By Richard Bradley HarperCollins $25.95 Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class By Ross Gregory Douthat Hyperion $24.95 A few weeks ago, I returned to Harvard for my 10th college reunion with a few things on my mind, mostly having to do with what Larry Summers, Harvard's current president, had been up to lately. To take just one example: when I recently started a book club in DC that focuses on nonfiction with a Jewish flavor, I discovered that book-clubbing was an oddly gendered activity. Indeed, at the first meeting of the club, it was all women, save me. Notwithstanding large community announcements, it was the same thing at the second meeting. Can one fairly say that women simply like to talk about books more than men? Or that women prefer to adopt more pre-commitment strategies to finish books? Or that women are more social than men? These were some of the topics of discussion at the first meeting, and all the women there indicated their agreement and puzzlement that book clubs skew towards those gifted with double X chromosomes. I wondered about my book club experience: sure, it was not solid empirical evidence. But does that mean the (widely observed) phenomenon is not worth discussing? It was in this context that the recent Larry Summers debacle at Harvard caught my eye. On the Harvard campus, at least in some quarters, it appears that such discussion is verboten. Indeed, in the aftermath of Summers's terrible spring, a time in which Harvard's arts and sciences faculty voted no confidence in Summers's presidency, a more pressing question has arisen: has Harvard become hostile to genuine curiosity and excellence? Or does the fact of Summers's continued presidency, notwithstanding the ego blow he suffered, augur an institutional commitment to such values? To avoid a hasty answer, I turned to two recent books about Harvard to gain some perspective on the Summers controversy. Ross Douthat's Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and Richard Bradley's Harvard Rules both chronicle the "Age of Summers," the former from a student's perspective, the latter from a journalist's perspective. I confess I have some vested interest in the matter - I am a devoted alumnus and former employee. So, with the nostalgic prism of hindsight, I took an active interest in Summers's presidency, which began just after I left. Although useful for general background, Bradley's Harvard Rules proves a disappointment to anyone with a passing familiarity with Harvard. Although Bradley conducted some interviews with various "victims" of Summers's reign, the book is mostly a repetitive pastiche of reportage from other sources - Summers himself granted no interviews to Bradley, even though he is typically mindful of shaping press coverage. The book is also gossipy beyond even this reviewer's prurient tolerance. How many instances of Larry Summers's boorish pizza-stuffing habits do we need to hear about? Or that he mispronounced some faculty's names and seemed fidgety or tired on occasion? Bradley and the detractors he cites fail to appreciate the demands of being a president of a major university, let alone Harvard. In light of that burden and spotlight, it's hardly surprising that Rudenstine, Summers's predecessor, felt compelled to take a three-month reprieve from the job to recover from the stress and anxiety. Bradley's book has other flaws too: for instance, it inanely sees perfidy when there is none. Discussing the prelude to Summers's stint in DC as Treasury secretary, Bradley conjures images of a secret deal struck in 1996 between Summers and Bob Rubin, his predecessor. Under the terms of this nefarious "secret arrangement," Rubin would urge then-president Clinton to name Summers as his successor if Summers agreed to stay on as deputy for two more years. Clinton agreed to this scenario, which Bradley describes as "unknown to anyone except the three men and a handful of their closest staff members." Bradley concludes the matter thus: "When Summers and Rubin dealt with foreign governments, they pushed for transparency. But when it came to their own fortunes, different standards applied." Good gracious. Will the Republic survive? This is not to say that Summers has always been a mensch while at Harvard or beforehand. Bradley's evidence bears out that Summers can be sharp-tongued, awkward and gruff. What's more, Bradley describes a more serious problem than simply the appearance of loutishness: namely, a predisposition to skew the processes of inquiries so that their results tend to confirm views held at the outset. As it happens, Summers tends to have robust and intriguing ideas about how to change Harvard for the better. But if Bradley's account is correct - and it is hard to vouchsafe - the point stands that Summers has not done a measurably strong job in ensuring that a variety of viewpoints are ventilated and listened to carefully. And, as Summers has found out, that can be devastating to the ongoing stability of an office like Harvard's presidency. BRADLEY'S SNARKY book is neither balanced nor all that incisive. Given the young age of its author, Douthat's book, Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, is surprisingly far more rewarding - especially as a contemporary rumination on what William James called, a century ago, the "Bitch-Goddess" of Success. Douthat suffered quite a beating a few months ago at the hands of various bloggers, after an excerpt of his book in the Atlantic Monthly amateurishly characterized the workings of various academic philosophy departments. But while warranted, the whupping was unfortunate, as it distracted attention from the two larger and more urgent points Douthat was making and that come across more clearly in the book. First, Douthat explained how Harvard was failing to demand enough from its undergraduates, especially in the humanities and social sciences. Although Harvard has for the last 50 years or so admitted many intellectual powerhouses, Douthat rightly laments that the dominant culture at Harvard encourages students to choose extracurricular over curricular activities. Whoever has the Palm Pilot with the most appointments wins the game. Summers is valiantly trying to shift this emphasis, in part by trying to curb grade inflation and by raising expectations and standards for both students and professors. Whereas Bradley views this agenda with suspicion, Douthat sees the moral costs of the unearned A- that is dispensed by teachers on a relatively slapdash paper. The breach of honesty that grade inflation represents was made apparent when Harvey Mansfield, one of Douthat's political philosophy professors (and mine), announced that instead of penalizing students who took his class by giving them the grades they deserved, he would give them two grades: the first would be an "ironic" grade, which would be sent to the registrar, the second would be given to the student alone, and would reflect what the student really "deserved" in the eyes of the teacher. The second thesis that Douthat weaves into his deftly crafted coming-of-age narrative is a measured critique of the prevailing Harvard fascination with diversity. Douthat argues that while there is tremendous diversity of complexion, there is not much diversity of class (or ideology) at Harvard. What's more, Douthat illustrates how even if one comes from truly unusual circumstances, the Harvard experience tends to produce homogenized results, with so many of Harvard's graduates ending up spending at least some time at the same professional schools, law firms, big cities, and reading the same blogs, magazines, books and newspapers. The operating assumptions of these two authors, or at least of their publishers, is that you don't have to have gone to Harvard to care about what's happening there in recent years. That's because, like it or not, Harvard's influence on American education, and the reproduction of its social elites, remains substantial, if also overestimated. If, and only if, you have some need to monitor the activities of the institution, then skip Bradley's book and enjoy Douthat's meditations. The writer, a graduate of Harvard University, is an attorney in Washington, D.C. His writing can be found at www.danmarkel.com.

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